Once you have your learning management system (LMS) in place and you’ve tested it with your other programs (such as the marketing, customer relationship or financial systems), it’s time to get your channel partners to use the LMS for training. In this article, you’ll learn many techniques for encouraging these external sales and support professionals to take advantage of your training portal through effective onboarding techniques.
You probably have several goals tied to the learning content you produce and the LMS you use to manage it all:
- To help your channel partners feel like insiders to your company;
- To help them understand the sales goals you’ve set for them and why they will want to meet and exceed those goals;
- To help them better understand how to support your products so they can solve most customer problems; and
- To keep them motivated and engaged, because the more they learn and know about your products, the more vested they’ll become and the better they’ll do in selling and supporting them.
Overall, we refer to these endeavors as “partner enablement,” showing your channel partners that you’ll consistently do all you can to help them function optimally.
Step 1: Fast Steps to Success
The process of partner enablement begins the moment you bring them into your organization as part of their initial onboarding experience. In this stage, your interactions with these new partners should consist of activities that will resonate with them while they’re in this mindset. Enthusiasm and interest in your products will be high—after all, it’s new and shiny!—and you’ll want to take advantage of that by fast-tracking their learning.
At this point make sure your training doesn’t dump too much information on people or waste this valuable time on content that doesn’t move them forward. For example, forget about company history or organizational structure. That doesn’t matter to your partners at this point. What counts is a quick lesson in whatever is the hottest or newest product you have on tap and how they can get out into the field and gain some traction (and make money) specifically with sales of that product.
Signing a first deal proves to the partner that they have made a smart move selling your products. Your job is to do everything you can to help your partner through this first success benchmark. Time-to-value needs to be fast. The training needs to focus on the key benefits and features of the product (not every last detail) and some of the methods others are using with success to sell or support this specific offering.
Tip: If you believe that going through your training content is vital to early success, consider encouraging your new partners by adding on a bonus incentive for successfully completing the lessons tied to that offering as part of making that first sale.
Step 2: Build Training Momentum with Your Partners
Only after this initial triumph should you spend time going a bit broader. Your goal with learning should be to lead them along a pathway relevant to their roles (sales versus support, for example) and opening up their view into your product offerings, channel partner tools and larger opportunities.
The right LMS helps in this effort by making sure you point learners in the right direction. The support technicians in your channel partner organizations shouldn’t have to wade through training options for using sales presentations most effectively; likewise, salespeople won’t want the level of technical detail those repair or maintenance experts need.
Here’s where creating brief, modular, on-demand lessons will come in handy. Both roles, for instance, may want to view a two-minute video on the newest product, what kind of customer it’s intended for and what its biggest benefit is. You can make that introductory lesson available to both roles as part of a longer course and separate their learning pathways to go in different directions from there.
You may also offer multiple pathways for the same role. Somebody new to your product line will need a different set of lessons than somebody who has represented your company for years. The worst thing you can do for learner engagement is to try to teach somebody something they already know and could teach themselves. Keep your courses relevant, concise and well targeted so people can find the ones that matter to them.
Tip: Don’t worry about updating the visuals in your lessons every time you make minor updates to specific products. You could easily spend all your time just keeping up with tweaks to the interface. Better to save revamping of images in existing lessons when you’ve made major updates to the products.
Step 3: Measure Success
Education experts have found that keeping people engaged with training is more effective when you check their learning and show them their progress. There are a few ways to do this.
First, make sure you include assessments as part of the lessons on a regular basis, and gauge it according to the scope of the learning. For example, a two-minute video might be worth a one- question pop quiz, whereas the successful completion of a three- hour-long course (that has multiple activities built into it) could be measured with two or three interactive exercises and a seven- question multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank exam. You might also reward the learner with a digital badge, certificate or some other type of credential, depending on the breadth of the achievement. (More on that shortly.)
Second, help your trainees measure their progress. That could be as simple as showing them where they are in a series of activities and how much further they have to go. Or it could be as complex as adding gamification to your training. This is the idea of incorporating game-like mechanisms into the lessons. These can include giving points (and bonus points) for completion of specific steps, showing a “leaderboard” that tracks and compares the progress of individuals within the same organization or even across companies (that could be competitors), and the use of “leveling up,” to goad people to continue their training to reach the next level of achievement.
Third, consider keeping people on their appropriate pathways by “gating” the learning. This means forcing them to finish one set of activities before they’re given access to another set of more advanced activities. The use of gates to block off content may sound counterproductive—after all, don’t you want them to pursue more advanced training? In reality, you need to make sure that your channel partner learners understand the basics before they leap ahead.
Tip: If you don’t want to force people to work through entire blocks of activities, then consider having them “test out” of the gated content by proving they know the fundamentals through assessment.
Step 4: Maintain Interest
Use your company communications—newsletters and emails— to keep people up to date with what’s new in your learning platform. Besides nuggets about new training offerings, include factual stories that emphasize how the training helped specific individuals or companies ramp up their sales success with your product line. (Include as many metrics as possible, because numbers speak.) Make sure the same information is available as news alerts in your LMS for greater visibility.
Again, don’t frustrate them with content that’s irrelevant to their needs. Customize your newsletter and tailor its content using the same segmentations you use to distinguish roles or types of partners—to make it as valuable to them as possible. Also, remember, the best training runs in two directions. While you are training your partners, encourage them to give you feedback via online surveys, in phone calls or at your face-to-face events. Don’t ignore what your partners tell you; they’ll prove to be a valuable resource for continuous improvement of your products, services and overall business. And they’ll help you improve your partner training program for overall better results.
Tip: Another obvious way to keep interest high is to give tangible rewards. That can include certificates and bigger financial incentives, of course, but it could also include small giveaways like the kind you hand out at tradeshows. I’m always amazed at how hard people will work to earn logoed toys they can hand over to their kids.
Badges and certifications
These days, you can’t view a resume, accept a business card or visit LinkedIn without being inundated with evidence of learning. If it’s not a series of mysterious acronyms appearing after somebody’s name, it’s small digital icons that represent proven skills in specific subjects or products.
People like to show what they know, and digital badges, microcredentials and other forms of certification help them do that. What you need to understand, however, is that different forms of recognition require a different level of commitment from you. A basics class that consists of sitting through 15 minutes of introductory content doesn’t warrant more than a check-off or a few points toward greater mastery. If you were to hand out a digital certificate to recognize that same 15 minutes of learning, it would call into question all of the rest of your credentials. People want to know that what they’ve earned is truly an achievement, not easily picked up by just anybody.
Three Forms of Certification
How do you structure a credentialing program that makes sense? I would identify three primary levels of credentialing, each with its own obligations.
The first is the quick achievement. This might consist of a single course with a fairly low-level of assessment. For example, if you were to introduce a new product line, you could also offer a set of lessons with various activities—videos, reading, and quiz questions—that ensure partners have the basics down and know enough to help you promote the product to their customers. The entire experience might take an hour or two. You could recognize that with a digital certificate of achievement or a badge.
Next in line would be a lone credential with a title that proves a higher level of commitment to learning. You might, for instance, apply this level when recognizing those individuals who have taken a series of courses in a given topic: “Installing the X109,” “Configuring the X109” and “Handling common repairs to the X109.” Assessment would require more questions and possibly hands-on proof of learning provided through a simulation.
Those who earned the achievement might then be able to call themselves “X109 Power User” or “X109 Technician” or “X109 Professional.” This too could come with a certificate or digital badge designating the accomplishment.
Then there’s the top level. If you’re selling complex or highly technical products where the risks are high for wrongful usage, you want to make sure your channel partners won’t put anybody in harm’s way and won’t break anything. This level of commitment by the partner requires one or more assessments that help them prove their deep competence. That involves getting testing professionals (psychometricians) in to help you develop your question sets and making sure they’re statistically valid; working with a testing company that can proctor your exams to prevent cheating; and developing extensive courseware and other learning materials that with diligence will fully prepare them to pass through the gauntlet you’ve set. This is where titles such as “Most Valuable Professional,” “Master Technician” or something similar is appropriate.
More help: The idea with certification is to encourage your channel partner employees to commit to ever-expanding levels of accomplishment. The right LMS helps you stay on top of the various details for those programs and makes sure that people get the recognition they deserve the moment they’ve earned it.
Certifications and Segmentations
Oftentimes, companies will use training as part of their channel partner segmentation, which has its own set of requirements and rewards—commonly, silver, gold and platinum.
Silver partners, for example, might need to have two current “Professionals” on staff, which gives them a particular incentive percentage, access to a set number of leads and certain discounts to your annual conference.
Gold partners might require two Professionals and one Master, and the incentives would reflect that greater commitment.
Platinum might require three MVPs, two of which would be allowed to make presentations at your conference. And so on.
The idea with certification is to encourage your channel partner employees to commit to ever-expanding levels of accomplishment. The right LMS helps you stay on top of the various details for those programs and makes sure that people get the recognition they deserve the moment they’ve earned it.
The right LMS helps you stay on top of the various details for those programs and makes sure that people get the recognition they deserve the moment they’ve earned it.”
Tip: Don’t assume that people will know how to use the recognition they receive. When you give them access to the various badges, certificates or titles, also provide them with examples of how to apply the information to their professional social profiles and broadcast it within their companies.
Expand your audience
Your learning strategy can help you expand your reach—and that of your channel partners—by spreading your brand recognition. Take the example of somebody who searches online for a specific product that your company makes. Inevitably that person will see results from your website pages. But what if that person hasn’t committed to any specific product yet, and he or she is seeking a more generic answer to the query? Would your product information still show up in the first one or two pages of results?
You can use some portion of your learning content developed for your channel partners as a draw to pull in prospects and new leads. Say you produce industrial gear for the building trade. Content used to teach your channel partners about how to use your equipment in specific ways might also include non-product- specific information that would serve well for search engine optimization: new uses for cement, better fire-proofing for new home construction, 3D printing for customized plumbing parts.
The key to success in this form of indirect marketing is to uncover the big issues facing the prospects your channel partners are selling to and educating them on how to solve those problems.
At the same time, consider broadening the extent of the training you deliver to your partners. Nobody likes to be sold to all the time—and that includes the companies in your channel. Help them expand their understanding of the overall industry to make your organization more relevant to their work.
Tip: Take a lesson from computer maker Lenovo, which runs a monthly “Power Hour” webinar. These online forums bring channel experts together with channel partners to discuss updates that will affect their businesses. Consider your own power hours that bring internal and external experts together with your channel members virtually to help them stay on top of the latest developments—not in your product lines but in your industry.
The goal of your learning structure should always be to help your channel partners get up to speed quickly on your products to make sales faster and more effectively. By taking a generous view of what that means, you will help your own company expand its brand—and therefore its reach—creating a virtuous cycle of interest that results in more sales for your partners and for you. The LMS is the tool that enables those efforts and makes sure you stay on top of what’s going on with your channel partners and their levels of engagement with you.